Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

The Expendables 2

Male pattern badness
The Expendables 2, the sequel to what I once called the “manliest movie ever made,” is pretty much what you’d expect: laughable writing, sub-par acting by semi-retired action actors, big things blowing up, countless logical and scientific inaccuracies, ridiculous laconic dialogue, “in-joke” references to other movies featuring the film’s actors, and in spite of all this, at least some measure of fun.

The story, if we can call it that, once again follows Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his band of mercenaries as they do the dirty work of Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).  This time, the mission involves retrieving information from a computer in a safe on a downed airplane in Albania (yup).  Refreshingly, the team is buffed by two new Expendables, one of which is a woman, Maggie, played by Chinese actress Yu Nan.  Ross immediately has a problem with her joining, maybe because he’s distracted by the urge to protect women, or maybe because he’s just sexist; we can’t be sure.  The other is Billy, played by Liam Hemsworth, the only actor in the movie who delivers a single line of convincing dialogue.  Ross’s best buddy, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) once again appears, lest the team be bereft of anyone who can still perform anything requiring agility.  Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren reprise their roles of taking up space, while Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, Ross’s arch-rival/frenemy, who makes far too many references to the Terminator films – this doesn’t work because Schwarzenegger already parodied his self-references in 1993’s Last Action Hero (and successfully, I might add).  Jet Li briefly resumes his role of martial artist Yin Yang (really?  That’s his name?), but he departs from the group early, as Li was working on several projects in China at the time of filming.

The mission, as it must, goes awry, and the information from the plane’s computer falls into the hands of a megalomaniac aptly named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who also murders one of the Expendables in order to make some nebulous point.  After burying their brother, the remaining Expendables flatly state their goals for the remainder of the film: “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.”  Stallone should have added, “So that I can finally have my showdown with Van Damme.”  This proves to be the only reason for Van Damme’s presence in the movie, as his character is barely onscreen and is given no opportunity for development.  I’m not made of stone; I know a fast-paced actioner starring Sly Stallone is not meant to be character centric, but having a reason to want the villain (especially one who is basically named “villain”) to receive his comeuppance would serve to streamline what is otherwise a bump-laden adventure.  Vilain, while sparsely seen until the final duel with Stallone, is apparently so badass that he wears sunglasses even at the bottom of a mine shaft.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers rely too much on Ross’s motivation – revenge for the death of someone we as an audience barely know – and not development of the villains as characters, which renders Vilain and his right hand man (played by longtime Van Damme collaborator Scott Adkins) ineffective compared with the villains played by Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the first film.

A movie like this relies upon its action, and if you enjoy ludicrous gunplay and fight scenes constructed with the goal of destroying everything in sight, this movie does not disappoint.  Inexplicably, the Expendables appear to be some sort of superpeople.  Ross, while speeding down a zipline, is shot twice, and doesn’t seem so much injured as he does simply disappointed about being hit.  When shot by Expendables, however, enemies transform into airborne chunks of meat.  While not as intentionally gory as the first movie, this has its share of grisly demises for Vilain’s army of redshirts, including one that follows the tried-and-true Theorem of the Magnetic Helicopter Blade, which states that if a fight scene takes place within thirty yards of an active parked helicopter, someone will be diced up in the propellers.

Much of the dialogue in the opening action scene reminded me of things I might shout when getting particularly excited about a video game.  “Here we go!”  “Take this, you bastards!”  etc.  Stallone at one point shouts the line “Rest in pieces!” after a henchman is shot about a thousand times, and even with his action-star enthusiasm, it’s still a groaner.  Even in an Expendables film, lines like these should be left on the cutting room floor.  It’s frustrating to think that big-budget films (i.e. the ones being greenlit and funded by major film studios) are the ones populated with writing so poor, while incredibly ambitious and dramatically sound films like Safety Not Guaranteed are being made with a budget barely hefty enough to pay the cast’s salaries.  To add to the badness, there’s a slightly-more-than-cameo by Chuck Norris, whose acting rust is supremely evident and who serves little purpose but to kill legions of un-Americans and deliver his famous “Chuck Norris facts,” which he still doesn’t seem to realize are parodying him rather than glorifying his martial arts exploits.  Unforgivably, Sergio Leone’s music is used to percuss Norris’s appearances.

The real highlight of the film is Yu Nan’s Maggie, Stallone’s first attempt to write a female character in a world inhabited by overgrown boys hauling gigantic phallic symbols around.  She gets more lines than one might expect (or that a viewer with Ross’s sensibilities might want), but she quickly proves herself as trustworthy and more intelligent than anyone in the group and fully capable of taking down five or six of Vilain’s henchman at a time.  While forming a friendly bond with Ross, she doesn’t end up as anyone’s love interest, though there’s a funny reference to the fact that she and Dolph Lundgren once starred in a film (Diamond Dogs) together.

The cast is studded with action stars, but is diluted by the inclusion of Lundgren, Couture, and Crews.  There are a few good performances, but the characters who deliver them vanish within the first half hour.  Van Damme looks to be in great shape, but doesn’t get to fight much.  The Expendables are made vulnerable by the death of a member, but the wrong Expendable dies.  I’ve heard talk of Nic Cage, Steven Seagal, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Wesley Snipes gearing up for possible appearances in The Expendables 3.  The impetus of the series has always been to elevate has-beens to currently-ares, but the problem with keeping things current is that you have to keep doing it, and The Expendables is about to reach a point of unsalvageable irrelevance.

The Expendables 2 (2012); written by Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk; directed by Simon West; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Yu Nan, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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